On November fifth, Blake and I threw a housewarming party to celebrate our new apartment in New Hampshire. We spent the morning in the kitchen, Blake worked on a potato bake, while I whipped together homemade apple crisp. Red, orange, and yellow New England foliage cast autumnal flames across the ground. The bare tress only served as a reminder that winter was right around the corner. Guests started arriving around 7pm. Soon our apartment was filled with music, food, and alcohol. While my friends, their significant others, family, and Blake all indulged in dinner, dessert, and drinks, I stepped outside onto the small side porch for some air. Even with an apartment full of people, I felt familiarly alone. It was the same alone I felt every year. I was celebrating another birthday: “The big two-six.”
A lot of things are supposed to happen when you’re twenty six. People get married when they are twenty six. People start families, have successful jobs, mortgages, and car payments. There is a protocol for your twenties, and I was coming up short, because here’s the catch: I’m twenty three. I was celebrating this protocol that I had not yet experienced, for somebody, who will also never experience it. Mom met me on the porch with a balloon, flung her arm around me, and pulled me close. She gripped the blue ribbon of a balloon and held it in front of me, not yet letting it go. Without saying a word, I placed my hand on top of hers. We counted down together, and let the balloon go. Cheers to twenty-six.
(I know, I know, it’s not good for the planet.)
* * *
I’ll never forget sitting on my brother’s bed the week after he died, packing his life into boxes. It’s so strange how someone’s life can be reduced to a few boxes and duct tape. I remember being so small, and wondering if my life could also fit into cardboard boxes labelled with words like, “stuffed animals”, and “shirts”. What about “future”, and “possibilities”, do those things go in boxes also? I couldn’t let these things become packed away in some storage bin in our basement. I ripped through the sealed boxes, unpacking them and touching each thing one last time.
Something happened when Josh died. Without addressing my own jagged edges, I tried to pick up everyone’s broken pieces. I tried to stuff them into the parts of myself that disappeared, just to feel whole again. I spent my entire life trying to be both of us, the daughter, and the lost son. I hoped every day that if I could somehow make up for the loss, my parents would feel better, I’d feel better. I played every sport I thought he would have wanted to play. I wanted him to have a life, or at least, to live the life he missed out on.
It took a really long time for me to accept my brother’s death. Actually, that sentence was excruciating to type, even now. Every time someone asked me if I was an only child, I lied. I said yes. I tried to accept it, with clenched fists, every time they responded with, “you’re SO lucky, you never had to share anything.” How can anyone just accept losing somebody? It’s not like a scholarship. I never stood on a podium and proudly accepted this. Nobody offered it to me; I never shook anyone’s hand. I didn’t lose him in a game of rock, paper, scissors. I didn’t go to a casino, put everything in the middle of the table, and lose. Though, if I had the chance to put everything in the middle of the table for one more day with him, I’d risk it. I’d go all in. I’d lose everything. I’d give my life, but I can’t.
SO, I’ll reword that whole accepting thing: It took a really long time for me to make peace with my brother dying. When I say a really long time, I mean fifteen years. It took me fifteen years to stop playing both parts. It took me fifteen years to realize I am only one person. It took me fifteen years to answer honestly when someone asks me if I am an only child. Now that I’ve learned to be at peace with things, I have more of my brother than I ever have before. I see him in everything I do, every risk I take, everything I create. I am able to do it now, to go all in. Fearlessly, I push everything I have right in the middle of that table, and stare the dealer in the eye.
Guess what? I win. Every time.